'Top Chef' recap, Chefs at sea

The final five have a group hug and exhale in relief. Big news from the party boat: Padma and Tom unexpectedly interrupt them mid-sigh to inform them they the next day they will be setting sail on a cruise to Alaska. Josh’s immediate concerned is that he doesn’t have appropriate outerwear. The gang heads home to pack. Brooke is deathly afraid of water travel and is trying to psych herself up and be a stronger person — for her son and for the sake of the competition.

The gang boards the Celebrity Cruises Infinity ship, which looks decidedly posh. They toast themselves with some very fruit-laden drinks and we see the ship’s decks filling up (clearly the Top Chef budget wasn’t big enough to rent out the whole ship). The band is kicking, dancing starts and Stefan shimmies up to Brooke who gently pushes him away, instructing, “You’re too close.”

Below deck, the chefs enter the kitchen, greeted by Padma and guest judge Curtis Stone. Lizzie is delighted to see Curtis, she’s clearly crushing on him. For the Quickfire Challenge, the chefs will be cooking for the ship’s Welcome Aboard party. They have two hours to prepare 200 portions of an amuse bouche highlighting iceberg lettuce. Stefan thinks this is a Titanic joke. I thought it was simply a reference to their Alaskan destination.

Either way, iceberg lettuce? Yikes. The chefs get to it, struggling to find everything they need and adjusting to the ship’s kitchen (no open flames allowed on a boat!). Sheldon seems particularly stumped, as iceberg is mainly utilized for “crappy filling for a taco, or a lame salad.”

Stefan is braising pork to be served with cooked iceberg, like cabbage. “They’re freezing upstairs and I think Padma should have something warm in her mouth.” he announces, absolutely intending every possible entendre.

After a commercial break featuring a spot for the Top Chef Celebrity Cruises Cruise from Miami (natch), the iceberg bites are served. Stefan’s braised lettuce and Sheldon’s Vietnamese wrap seem unique. Lizzie, Josh and Brooke all seem to have done the same thing: variations on the wedge salad, with bacon and blue cheese.

Curtis announces that though he and Padma enjoyed all the dishes, the one that used the ingredient in the most successful way was Sheldon’s Vietnamese lettuce wrap with pork, shrimp and pickled iceberg hearts. He will be given an advantage in the elimination challenge, to be revealed later.

The chefs have the rest of the afternoon off to relax. Lizzie and Sheldon hit the spa for manicures. Sheldon’s manicurist is from South Africa and she and Lizzie bond over their mutual homeland. Lizzie shares that she recently lost her father and gives us the first real look into her personal life all season. Meanwhile Brooke, Josh and Stefan are on the lido deck and knocking a few drinks back (prepared by, I can only hope, Isaac the Bartender). Josh’s wife is due to give birth that day and he’s on edge about that.

The gang reconvenes for dinner at “Q-Sine”, the unfortunately named wacky-theme restaurant on the ship. Josh and Brooke engage in some playful sparring over who has won more challenges (answer: Brooke) but when Josh points out that Stefan hasn’t won any elimination challenges, things take a seriously catty turn. Lizzie and Sheldon practice looking at their napkins. 

Thankfully the food comes, which is plated in the most god awful cheese ball schticky ways. Sushi lollipops! Disco shrimp with blinking lights! I am half expecting someone with extra flair to offer them some Pizza Shooters or Extreme Fajitas. Padma and Curtis interrupt their dessert (chocolate tombstones!) to explain the Elimination Challenge. The chefs will be running dinner service at Q-Sine tomorrow night. Each must take the concept of surf and turf and “turn it on its head.” Sheldon gets first pick of the proteins as his advantage. Padma leaves and advises them, “Please, be creative tomorrow.”

The next day, in the walk-in, Sheldon selects the rather pedestrian pairing of beef tenderloin and lobster tails. Brooke decides to go bold or go home and takes frog legs and mussels. Yes! Lizzie wows everyone by expertly butchering an entire suckling pig (Josh in particular seems to be suddenly seeing her in a different light. If you know what I mean).

The gang races back into the kitchen and fights over the spread of non-traditional serving vessels. Gimmicks galore.

As prep moves forward, doubts creep in. Brooke is struck by amphibian ambivalence and wonders if the frog legs count as “turf” or not. Josh’s scallop-based “pasta” has not set at all, and Sheldon seems totally despondent, resigned to the fact that he’s not making a playful dish and that he missed the mark when selecting his predictable proteins.

Judges are seated, joined by Hugh Acheson and several Celebrity Cruises execs. Up first is Brooke’s mussels and frog legs with celery root and fennel puree, papadums and shallot chutney. Tom praises her pairing of beets with frog legs, which gave them an earthiness (enough to quality as a “turf”, one hopes). On the flip side, her greasy papadums are panned.

Stefan describes his dish to the judges: Braised pork belly with beer sauce, parsnip & eel ravioli. Tom and Hugh are taken aback by the crunchiness of the pork belly. Curtis defends it, saying that it’s a cultural thing - in England, Australia and Europe cooking pork until it’s charcoal is apparently totally normal. Hugh seems unconvinced. Everyone agrees that his parsnip-eel ravioli are a miss, and Tom is grossed out by the beaker full of greasy sauce accompanying the dish.

Josh serves next, and explains that he didn’t like the way his pasta set so he changed it to a more scrambled egg presentation. The scrambled scallops are served with braised pork belly and, to no one’s surprise, bacon. Padma and Tom can’t taste the scallop but are generally happy with the dish. While some may argue it’s not wise to admit your mistakes if they aren’t obvious, the judges seem impressed with Josh’s game time switch up and recovery.

Sheldon is having a bad day. He knows his food is “uninspiring” and his tempura is once again not frying up crisply (a repeat of the Roller Derby challenge). Despite his self-doubt the dish sounds amazing - Korean BBQ filet mignon, tempura lobster, sesame cabbage, kimchi & teriyaki sauce. The judges agree that the lobster missed the mark, but the other elements are winners. “The kimchi I could eat all day,” says Hugh as he reaches for seconds.

Finally, Lizzie is up. She’s panicking as she struggles to figure out how to work the kitchen’s steamer. She is out of time and must start plating, not having steamed her rolls for as long as she wanted to. She serves up her dish: Cabbage stuffed with suckling pig & scallops with mustard sour cream and pickled shallots and apple. The cabbage is undercooked, making the rolls fall apart when they are cut into. Despite the cabbage blunder, Tom and Curtis love the flavor profile.

Padma asks the judges’ panel for their votes on who should win. Brooke and Josh are named as favorites. Sheldon and Stefan are named as possible losers. Lizzie is actually named as both a favorite and potential dismissal. At judges’ table, Sheldon stammers that he wasn’t inspired by his ingredients. Tom points out that he was the chef with first choice and could have picked anything. Sheldon looks just about ready to cry and it’s breaking my heart.

Curtis announces the most imaginative and successful surf and turf dish was Brooke’s. She wins the challenge and a seven day Caribbean cruise from Celebrity Cruises.

“That’s ironic,” she says, dryly. In her interview she seems more excited and says she’s “ecstatic” to have won and that being on the cruise helped get her over her fear of boats.

Padma tells Lizzie and Josh they are safe and can return to the kitchen. So it’s down to Sheldon or Stefan.  Tom tells them that they are both here for the same reason — the separate elements on their dishes didn’t come together. Tom admits he doesn’t want either of them to go, then asks Padma to deliver the news: Stefan, please pack your knives and go.

Stefan’s exit interview is surprisingly introspective and positive. He says that the show has inspired him and that it helped him remember why he wanted to be a chef to begin with. Then, much more true to character, “See you in f---ing 'Last Chance Kitchen,' mother------s.”

Next week: The chefs disembark in Juneau and are cooking up wild Alaskan salmon, and Padma tells one unlucky chef their dish is only worthy to feed the sled dogs.

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